A Swing and a Whiff(le Ball Bat)

For a moment, jump into the way-back machine with me and think about tryouts two weeks ago. Remember your nerves while stepping into the cage to hit for the first time in front of unknown coaches with clipboards and serious expressions? We do. And while we didn’t record any video of your swings, I’ve done some research and found clip that nicely simulates your walk to the batting cage that fateful Monday afternoon.

If that was just your approach to the cage, you can only imagine what your ensuing swings looked like.

Right. Even more painfully robotic.

To be fair, who wants to be evaluated? And who wants to potentially get cut and pushed into early retirement just months after buying those new batting gloves at Dick’s? Nobody. So being a bit tense made you normal. There was a lot on the line, after all. And being tense can certainly rob your swing of some fluidity. But your swing didn’t change much as the week progressed–or as we entered and exited the following week, because your roboticism is not merely about nerves.

In many cases your rigidity started years ago with over-coaching by well-intentioned dads and hitting instructors sometimes quite knowledgable and accomplished. These mentors may have de- and reconstructed your swing with a precise, novel recipe for success—and you in turn acquired an unshakeable belief that responsible swinging means thinking through each phase of your swing while you’re swinging (NOOOOOOOO!) in order to successfully implement all these philosophies and programs gifted you by the experts. Hitting became unfortunately cerebral. Too mechanical. Too much step-by-step watchfulness and manual control. Hitting surely doesn’t just happen, your reasoning has gone; otherwise why would a team of experts have been enlisted to get your game above that of your peers? If you lost focus on any aspect of your swing, even for a second, you’d backslide to where you started, you’ve told yourself.

Juggling all these considerations makes the batter’s box a crowded place. Even when fans hold their tongues to allow you to concentrate, mindful of how difficult hitting truly is, you’re rarely alone.

Yet chances are high that you’ve forgotten to bring the most important thing into the batter’s box.

Your intent.

What’s intent?

It’s the part of you that wants nothing more than to crack a ball so far the left fielder pulls a Barry Bonds and drops his head in hopelessness, accepting that the ball will probably burn up in re-entry and if not, you’d have time to circle the bases three times before he would hit his first cutoff man. It’s the part of you that clenches your fists in sixth hour as you imagine your next line drive humming off the sweet spot of your bat. It’s your conviction, deep in your gut more than in you head, that you can rise to the challenge in the batter’s box. That you’ve succeeded before, that you will again, and that soon enough you’ll find yourself standing on second base, shoving your batting gloves into your back pocket and picking up signs from your coach, nearly out of breath as your teammates roar from the dugout, anticipation and celebration blurred powerfully.

So how do we improve your intent? How do we imbue your hitting attitude with power and put your heart at the center of your approach? How do we cultivate hunger?

Once upon a time you would play pickup ball in your backyard. You were so young your parents only trusted you with a wiffle-ball bat, but you swung with fervor and sometimes out of your boots. The objective was to clear the fence because everything else was an out.

Well, let’s pick up that wiffle ball bat again and swing it in the same style. As hard as possible, almost recklessly. Even better, take a step or two toward an imaginary pitcher as you do it. Get your whole body into it, and if it helps, imagine it as a kind of fly-swatter shooing away all those voices and sources of interference that have muddied the waters over the years. Even thirty or forty swings a day will help you remember who’s in charge.

The batter’s box is yours. No one is invited in, not even me. So while mechanics do matter and there is a place for tweaking swings, the right intent makes sure you’re the owner of your experience.

Just ask this kid.

(Oh yeah: There’s some science behind a secondary benefit of this approach. Swinging considerably lighter bats in practice to achieve maximum bat speed is referred to as underloading and helps promote swing explosiveness in games by targeting and training muscles underutilized when overloading (swinging heavier than normal bats) and typically underdeveloped when training with normal bats alone.)

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